When the Vietnamese government approved plans in April 2006 to begin mining huge bauxite reserves in the Central Highlands, it unleashed a series of high level debates that showcased a range of voices, lobbying interests, and outright opposition, that had hitherto been stifled. Between 2007 and 2010, civil society activists, bloggers, environmentalists, lawyers, and senior Communist Party officials, mobilized and coordinated opposition with an efficiency and strength that surprised both Vietnamese policy-makers and international scholars of Vietnamese society. Moreover, the extent of the news coverage, governmental reviews and public petitions criticizing the bauxite mines, revealed a vibrant civil society in Vietnam. The controversy also sparked national debate touching on far broader issues of nationalism, animosity towards China, as well as the role of the state in economic and evironmental development.
This paper examines the status of contemporary civil society in Vietnam from a process-oriented perspective. (1) The traditional Western intellectual understanding of non-political civil society is not an appropriate framework with which to study Vietnamese civil society, which is almost invariably situated in a dense web of connections to the government. This paper, then, analyses Vietnam's civil society in light of its actions and processes rather than by its political and structural links to the state in Vietnam.
I argue that the predominantly urban and state-centric approach (2) of current models for analysing civil society falls short of resolving the complex dynamics behind such debates as that concerning Vietnam's bauxite mines, which showcases a convergence of elite-level dialogue and grassroots opposition. Instead, we should look to an expanding and contracting space (3) for civil society-like actors to lay claims that challenge policy from the top. The combined interaction of grassroots citizens and reform-minded political elites on certain policy issues will negotiate the future contours of civil society in Vietnam.
The analysis takes as a case study the current project of the large-scale bauxite mines in the Central Highlands. The Chinese-Vietnamese joint venture between two state-owned enterprises (SOEs) is seeking to take advantage of Vietnam's immense bauxite reserves (the third largest in the world) in order to process aluminum. (4) The project came under unprecendented criticism from mainstream elite in the Communist Party, environmental scientists, prominent lawyers and citizen bloggers. (5) After a series of contentious policy debates and high-level reviews of the project's sustainability, environmental as well as social impact, by various government ministries, the Vietnamese state-owned corporation Vietnam National Coal and Mineral Industries Group (VINACOMIN) went ahead with the mining project, and in early 2012 it began extracting and processing aluminum from its raw source, bauxite.
While collective citizen action has had a measurable impact on the agenda within Vietnam's highest legislative body, the National Assembly, the failure to stop the bauxite mines reveals Vietnam's continuing state-centred political control. (6) Thus, one observes, on the one hand, an increasingly organized and prominent civil society able to lobby the state's decision-makers and, on the other hand, an enduring elitist, state-centred approach to politics and policy formulation in Vietnam today. The arena of friction and cooperation between Vietnamese citizens and their government exposes coalescing civil society networks and actors. (7) It is the nature of such civil society in Vietnam to which I now turn.
What is Civil Society?
The term civil society has appeared in a variety of contexts throughout the history of liberal democracies and in developing countries. Some argue that the existence of a civil society is the defining benchmark of democracy. (8) The terms democracy and civil society are often closely linked. …